By Melita Rogelj
What is the role — and the potential — of the arts in bringing about sustainability? That was the question pursued by Sustainability Institute intern Melita Rogelj as her Master’s thesis for the School for International Training in Vermont (graduated in 2000).
Melita, also a graduate of the prestigious LEAD program (www.lead.org), set out to answer the following questions in her research:
- What is the connection between the arts and sustainability?
- What is a new way to think about the arts that would inspire and facilitate a transition to increased levels of sustainability?
- What is the importance of art for sustainability?
Her approach was “to associate sustainability with cultural evolution. In order to achieve sustainability, I believe we must become a society of artists — willing to take creative risks, attempting to make connections and leap across disciplines and cultures in ways previously not attempted, or even imagined.”
The following is abridged and edited from her original thesis. For more information about her continuing research, contact her at melitarogeljgmailcom.
I believe that every living and breathing human being deeply desires a world filled with joy and beauty. This world would allow for an overflow in the diversity of creative expression and the uniqueness of the human spirit. The arts are the great vehicle for creativity — something every person engages with on a daily basis. Yet today it seems that very few people call themselves “artists.” It is a name reserved for the select few who are earning a living from the profession.
Sustainability is about creating new and better ways for humanity to meet its needs without destroying either the beauty or the integrity of Nature. My research explored the connection between the arts and sustainability to assess the ways by which the arts can help societies achieve sustainability. My hope was to create a bridge between the arts and sustainability — a bridge whereby the creative process can offer us new methods in approaching sustainability and offer the possibilities for the beautiful life at the core of everyone’s desire.
The overarching aim of my project was to promote a sense of aesthetics that embodies the ethic of sustainability. In practice, this means to infuse the sustainability field with the power of the arts by introducing more artists to the concept of sustainability, while also documenting and getting in touch with sustainability initiatives that have used the arts in their work (or are interested in doing so).
My research has shown that many people who are working in the sustainability movement, or any movement for the betterment of the world, yearn for the arts. They yearn for the time and the possibility to engage deeply with the world, to observe, to create, to express their awe, their sorrow, their anger, their being in the world and their deep engagement with the world. Once, over dinner with eight other colleagues, we were asking ourselves what we would most rather be doing if money was not an issue. Everyone expressed a vision of a lifestyle that had a strong emphasis on creativity and the arts.
Yet for the most part, the way that the art world is structured today, it seems impossible to engage with the arts as most of our time is spent working to survive economically. The need for the arts is mostly satisfied through consumerism. There are people who are born with a more specific talent and desire for artistic expression, and it is wonderful to have market mechanisms that support such talents. On the other hand, when the market mechanisms dominate the process of creativity, it seems to work against the ability of most people to directly contribute to the arts.
While there seems to be great potential for self-expression and discovery in every person rarely does mainstream culture or the educational system invite us to think deeply about what it means to be in the body, to create things around us, to live in time in space, to grow old, to have children, friends, or to love. Art allows for this kind of self-reflection. Our modern lives have suppressed our instinctual need to create.
I began questioning the role of the arts in a world which, in my perception, is in grave danger. The natural systems are being damaged and destroyed at a rapid rate and dangerous scale every day. The social system is constructed in such a way that the gap between the rich and the poor widens daily. This is happening all the time, just as the seconds steadily move around the clock. No matter what I feel that I am doing or contributing to stop or change this destruction, I am aware that the systems around me are quickly taking us in a direction which does not provide a vision of a sustainable future — and may perhaps lead to disaster.
I have worked professionally in the field of environmental protection since 1994. The more I worked on the problems with environmental protection, the more I realized that we need to create a dynamic social process, involving people everywhere in changing the values and lifestyles that lead away from the current destructive trends. Unfortunately, the dominant global economic system is keeping the current trends in motion, and natural resources are being depleted at an accelerating pace. With insight into the implications that the lack of general awareness about the state of the world will cause our destruction, I became more involved with issues such as public participation in environmental decision making and sought new methods for how the media can be used to educate the public about the problems in the environment.
Nevertheless, increasing public awareness proved to be very difficult and the response rate to events organized related to issues concerning sustainability was usually low. I often experienced frustration. It felt very difficult to initiate change. On the other hand, people I talked to individually did care, but were not passionate about the available channels for expression. They found it very hard to relate to the more radical and usually very depressing messages coming from the environmental community. They had a hard enough time focusing on solving the many more immediate problems of their own everyday life, including those that encompass a great variety of economic and emotional issues. Why add on additional problems that are not so immediately visible? If the pollution in the city gets too high there are still plenty of escapes to nature; if the water is polluted, there is plenty of bottled water available, etc.
Fortunately, changes are happening, such as an increased availability of ecologically friendly” or sustainable products that are recyclable, organic or made out of recycled or organic materials. Additionally, a greater number of institutions — governmental, non-profit and business organizations — are taking more responsibility and becoming dedicated to a better quality of life in the present and for the future. As a result, more people are believing that action needs to be taken to improve and restore our environment, and seeing others also engaged in the process reinforces this. The environmental movement will continue to grow and diversify. People are coming to realize that the main point is not so much to save nature, as it is to change the relationship which the current dominant civilization has with the natural world.
To move toward a more sustainable future with great joy and enthusiasm, there must be something that we hope for, an appealing and alluring vision that draws us. Since ancient times, the arts have traditionally helped us envision the future. Unfortunately, the most alluring visions we encounter today in the course of our daily lives are those designed to promote a commercial culture that result in destructive consumption. These visions come most obviously in the form of advertising messages, supported by very talented artists and a very sophisticated aesthetic. Many of our best creative minds are employed in the design and promotion of a way of life that is proving dangerous both to nature and to human communities.
I like to imagine that sustainability represents the next step towards a beautiful and hope-filled vision of the future, far more exciting than what most definitions of the word convey. But translating this complex concept into compelling images and words, and innovative and creative ideas is a critical challenge. The fact that there can be no local sustainability without global sustainability — across nations and cultures — makes the translation challenge all the more difficult. This is where the arts come in. Vision, imagination, creative breakthroughs — all of these are essential for the emergence of sustainability. All of these are also at the center of the artistic process. My hope is that the information I have gathered in the course of my research will convince readers of the great value of building a bridge between the arts and sustainability.
Booth, Eric. The Everyday Work of Art. Naperville: Source Books, Inc., 1997.
Eric Booth, an educator, businessman, author and actor, writes about moving from looking to art as a noun and explaining it as a verb. Because art is so relevant in the creation of our everyday experiences and our future, it is much needed by sustainability, especially because sustainability asks of us to envision a new future and create everyday experiences that will lead to that future. Booth explains that in using the tools of art we can transform the quality of our daily living.
Fagone, Vittorio. Art in Nature. Milano: Mazzotta, 1996.
An important collection of essays on the international “Art in Nature” movement, dealing with two very relevant questions: ”What is the position of the world of art with respect to nature?” and “What is artist’s position with respect to the expansion of technology?” The artists documented in the book have a new awareness of the environment that is sustained by a critical view of the link between people and nature. The perception of the environment has challenged artists to inscribe harmonious and communicative signs in the landscape. The artwork here is in nature.
Gablik, Suzi. The Re-enchantment of Art. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1991.
Gablic is an artist, writer and teacher, and has written and lectured extensively on the philosophy of art, cultural politics, and cultural criticism. In the early nineties, she rebelled from the post-modern art scene, and found greater meaning in art that has meaning. In The Re-enchantment of Art she confronts the modernism on our society and proposes a remedy that is based on the redefinition of art in our society. The fact that she introduces the urgent environmental issues and philosophers such as Thomas Berry (who in his book The Dream of the Earth establishes the philosophical grounds for a bio-regional model of re-inhabiting the earth) to her audience of artists and art enthusiasts is extremely valuable. She also presents artists who have chosen to create art that is ecologically and/or socially responsible as well as inspiring and educational.
Lane, John. A Snake’s Tail Full of Ants: Art, Ecology and Conscious. Devon: Green Books LTD, 1996.
Lane questions whether formation of the self-directed professional artist was a great step forward in human evolution or whether it was actually dehumanizing. He calls for new perspectives and new visions, the need to repair the damage to our external world and above all to attempt a new art. He describes how the emerging ecological world view, which is directly related to sustainability, will need to embrace a new approach to creativity, and that the “five-hundred-year-old Humanistic tradition of art for the elite, art cut off from society, from nature and the sacred cannot serve the needs of our future society.” Lane also talks of alienation of the artist within ourselves as being an aspect of the problem of the current global crisis. The care of imagination is integral to our survival as a civilization, in his opinion. The book is written out of concern for the current crisis of the arts as well as from a desire to explore the possibilities of an art appropriate to an ecological world-view.
De Geus, Marius. Ecological Utopias. [Citation coming.]
Utopian visions are a kind of art form, and De Geus, a Dutch academic, does a marvelous job of explaining the importance of utopias as well as their particular drawbacks. Utopias have been very useful in providing solutions and suggestions, visions and ideas for the functioning of society. The reoccurring problem in ecological utopias, in the author’s opinion, is their tendency to be visions of sufficiency rather than abundance. Most ecological utopias place emphasis and value on a frugal lifestyle with a strict behavioral codex, while in reality, many human wants and desires are for pleasure and comfort influenced by spontaneity and irrational behavior. The other drawback of most utopias is that they envision a forever “stable state”; they do not give enough thought to the dynamic processes of change that happen in all societies. On the other hand, utopias illustrate good principles and criteria for a basis for the development of society. Ecological utopias can serve as a compass heading or point of orientation for policy development — a very important factor in the goal of sustainability.
Callenbach, Ernest. Ecotopia. Berkley: Banyan Tree Books, 1975.
In this classic, Callenbach presents a vision for the future which incorporates ecological, humanistic and political elements in harmony. Even though it takes place in the future, one must describe it not as science fiction, but as socio-political fiction. The novel is sophisticated scientifically, but the focus is on imagining a future where “living” means using technology instead of being used by it. The story takes place in early 21st century and Ecotopia is a state that has been independent for several decades, regionally located in the Pacific Northwest. The book is full of great suggestions to mitigate our current environmental problems –some of them quite visionary, especially considering it was written in 1975! The life in Ecotopia is described from the vantage point of a journalist from New York, sent by the US government. Within the subject of the arts, “Ecotopians” blur the difference between artistic amateurs and professionals, much as they do in the study of science. Everyone is involved, however few gain the widespread recognition and economic success to sustain themselves purely from their art. This general involvement in the arts also tends to allow people to focus more on the appreciation of local artists and not so much to those renowned by pop culture. The appreciation and nurturing of local community is one of the fundamental principles of sustainability. This vision, as well as many technical and policy solutions for sustainability that Calembach presents, could be seriously considered for implementation in the present day.
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Eco-Art Magazine is an idea exchange that recycles ideas to encourage innovative practice. The primary focus will be on art and ecology. As a cross-over, the magazine will bring together a diverse range of practicing artists, sculptors, architects, landscape architects, eco-engineers, gardeners, educators, designers, farmers and the public at large. To do what? To provide examples of individual responses to the great social challenges that face us all.
EnviroArts: Orion Online is a collaboration between The EnviroLink Network and The Orion Society, launched on Earth Day, April 22, 1998. This site is a collection of essays, poetry, interviews, and portfolios of images by some of the best writers and artists in the environmental field, including Barry Lopez, Wendell Berry, Jane Goodall, Rick Bass, Bill McKibben, Pattiann Rogers, Sonja Bullaty, Angelo Lomeo, and Scott Russell Sanders.
Resurgence not only offers a critique of the old paradigm, it gives working models for an emerging new paradigm. Resurgence is packed full of positive ideas about the theory and practice of good living: permaculture, community supported agriculture, local economics, ecological building, sacred architecture, art in the environment, small schools and deep ecology
Art & Ecology: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Curriculum, the fifth in a series of ArtsEdNet Talk online exhibitions and discussions that focus on using discipline-based art education (DBAE) in the classroom. We are pleased to present this interactive online exhibition and discussion through the generous cooperation of Dr. Don H. Krug and participating guest educators, art educators, artists, and scientists. Art & Ecology is both a set of resources for teachers and an online exhibition of contemporary ecological art.
As part of my thesis research, I performed an anthropological, ethnographic, narrative survey to explore philosophically the connection between art and sustainability and the potential of using the arts to make sustainability more vivid and visible in society. I sent out a questionnaire by email, asking respondents to answer the following three questions in an open-ended format:
- What do you think is the role or potential of the arts for making sustainability happen? How important is that role?
- What does sustainability need that art can provide?
- What does art need that sustainability can provide?
I performed this survey between November 1999 and February 2000, writing to a mix of artists and sustainability practitioners all over the world. Their responses were as diverse as they were. Here is a summary of their responses, grouped into themes. The words of a number of different people have been put together to make the summary paragraphs.
The arts can show that sustainability is not just about economics, environmental concerns, and social issues but rather how those weave into an aesthetic of life with elements of ethics, spirituality and emotional interaction. Sustainability needs vision, alignment, purpose, character and habits. It needs an inspirational expression and more communication that conveys ideas, feelings, and actions together. The visibility and the emotional impact of the issues related to sustainability need to be related to positive messages rather than the doom and gloom of environmental “armageddonists.”
Artists do believe in sustainability, but the language that is currently used to describe sustainability is not accessible to them. Sustainability is not the best word. It is not an “art” word. The word should perhaps be “resurrection” (bringing life to something or bringing back to life), or at the very least, “regeneration.” It is very important to have many artists working with the sustainability movement and to assist them in finding more ways to present sustainability concepts. Sustainability is far too policy oriented. Artists can generate the image of the future that we think we want to move toward. They can more vividly express things that communities care about. Art can provide a “virtual” model, an impression of a sustainable world. As thus, art can create an almost tangible vision of sustainability.
“Art facilitates the education of children about sustainability.”
Art is one of the most successful means of educating children. Through reading, we can pass on statements of or descriptions about sustainability, but you cannot impart a true understanding of what sustainability truly is. This can be accomplished through art. One children’s dance teacher said that she does the work “to protect the children who come with their natural intelligence and desire to create the images of possibility in the future.” Other artists working with nature stress the importance of children learning from their work and hope to reconnect humanity to nature as a result.
Communicating, clarifying, engaging and motivating people about sustainability will initiate change. Using the arts for sustainability is primarily related to education and sparking ideas as well as engaging people. The promotion of issues related to sustainability through art can convey an instant impression and capture the beholder’s attention. Through this, the mechanisms of advertising can help the cause. Every new paradigm or idea needs mediums of communication to reach the wider public. However, newspapers, non-fiction books, television news and commentary, as the more traditional channels of message distribution, are perhaps less effective formats for the conceptual understanding of sustainability. Arts can make dry information and numbers standout, be more personal, and most importantly, change the ‘perceptive location’ of someone absorbing the information. The artist is viewed as an agent of change — a creative voice, essential for shifting global consciousness. The power of the arts to grab attention and change perception can be very useful in promoting sustainability. The hope is to educate, inspire, and let people understand the land is a special place and the way we care for it determines the future life of our society.
” Artists can be part of sustainability teams or projects.”
Art can be very helpful in resolving complex societal problems because it can take one out their sector of specific commitment and help to see the bigger picture. For this reason it is very important to make sure artists or artist teams are part of the design, planning, fabrication and installation of anything we do or build or even discuss. Their work creates an arena where competing points of view can be safely addressed as well as improve physical conditions in sustainable ways.
“Sustainability can be a source of inspiring ideas to the artists.”
Joan Lederman, a potter working with deep sea mud, was inspired to her very unique methods through the contemplative experience. The experience of awe — falling in love with life and sustaining the faith towards life — is deeply ingrained in her work. With his attitude Sustainability could provide new perspectives on art that would revitalize interest and valuing of art.
“What is ‘art’? Indigenous peoples have a very different view.”
Something magic happens in art that is more integrative for the human spirit then anything else is what poet Phil Klasky believes. Art can describe, inspire and open. Art is a great liberating force. It can render an impression without describing things, that is, the beholder can understand the meaning of the image within a fraction of a second, instead of reading a page or two of explanatory information.
On the other hand, everything could be called art — all the design we see around us. The question is how much of it is representing sustainability?
Western Standards primarily look at the technical aspects of art. Some artists are choosing an approach that is more about an organic emotional process. They are believing that the responsibility of the artist in society is also in helping the individual. Historically and cross culturally, the artists were core leaders to their communities. They had the capacity to facilitate symbolic experience — connecting individuals with the larger archetypal threads of existence and fostering consciousness of our place in the world. Western society has so commodified the arts, while indigenous art in its very nature is sustainable therefore has a sustainability message.
“Art can act in service of the understanding of sustainability.”
Art and culture are at the center of development. Art is playing an enormous role in shaping the life and missions or cultural visions and aspirations of a society. Art is essential for cultural understanding, and hence global sustainability. Yet, any significant sustainability initiative is related to the individual level. Both art and sustainability are processes that can lead to a creative outcome. Sustainability rests on the notion that individuals have to be both conscious of our place on the planet and embrace values that enable us to live sustainability at the individual level. Art can help people to become conscious of the state of our planet and assist in negotiating the values that will support sustainable living. While working on environmental issues authentically as an artist one can find different ways to engage people. When artists are able to show the integrity of their art — and find ways to interweave the artistic path into a movement and to be validated and respected for it — that is sustainability. Art is a model for sustainability because the basic values in art stem from the desire to communicate meaningful experiences that resonate over time. Even fleeting, fugitive and temporary experiences endure. A dance, a song, a vision becomes embodied and remembered, re-communicated, recycled, and re-embraced. Creativity and art is a model for sustainability because the basic values in art stem from the desire to communicate meaningful experiences that resonate over time. If sustainability is a movement towards long-term well being, acting now so as to impact a better future, then art is a natural partner. Partnership and mutual regard for people engaged in social, economic, industrial, educational sustainability can embrace art’s ability to give communicable form and content to situations, experiences, aspirations.
Sustainability is a new, albeit difficult, subject for art to tackle. The arts sometime express the current mind-set of a culture from within the paradigms of that culture and they sometimes are a mode of expression of new ideas — some of which are based on a new paradigm or another culture. They are valuable for reflecting of where we are (our values, our ideas, our modes of expression etc.) and also for postulating and playing with possibilities of where we might go for alternate scenarios, as it were. Art creates excellent opportunities for others. Creatively engaging in art continues to grow our own lives. Art is a model for sustainability.
“Art is a double-edged sword.”
Even though the arts are most often something that the greatest dreams are made of, it can just as easily become a self-serving expression of the most egotistical, commodifying and destructive activity that actually helps people to “talk the talk”, but not “walk the talk”. In many ways, the issue is not about the arts, but rather about the symbolic. Artists should be aware that they operate with very powerful tools of social change and have a great responsibility. Sustainability provides a relevant philosophical framework for promotion of responsibility of artists. There are many examples of using the arts to promote philosophical/political/cultural goals. Art for a purpose, even a noble one, is, by definition, propaganda (or advertising.) We can say that advertising in relation to art today has taken on the role that art had in relation to church in the previous century or two. Art can help to foster consciousness, humility, heightened perception, passion, wonder, respect and more. Art can also foster arrogance, inflatedness, myopia, and more. It truly is a double-edged sword. Some artists feel a lack of appreciation from the world around them while others feel that they have THE answer. Somewhere between the two is the responsibility, which provides a different attitude. This attitude can empower artists to make a difference. Art is in its nature political because it represents a voice that will not be compromised. If politics does not embrace art, it becomes mechanical rather then holistic and misses the creative power that can find solutions. When artists are involved in politics, because they care about the issues, they are described as activists. There is an opinion that engagement in politics disables art (even if that sounds absurd…) so many artists keep themselves out of that in order to maintain a purity of their art. It is always hard to make great art no matter if it is political or not…
“The sustainability of Artists is important for sustainability.”
Artists need to be sustained in the system. Many artists encounter the problems of time and visibility. It takes a great amount of energy to create the identity of a recognized artist. Connected to that are also the problems of funding, especially for local artists. It is hard to create work that is purely the love of the artist’s work, and not a compromise with a broad financial need. Art needs commissioning for working with a particular art that can represent sustainability. Art needs purpose, employment, money and an opportunity to belong. The artist’s role in society today is very disempowered. This is evident in the fact that when an artist wants to make a statement they end up in opposition and protest and not in a position of power.
In the postmodern world everything is put into question. The political systems are full of faults. The traditional values are being challenged. Due to the dominance of the economic factors in human development, cultural evolution is being restrained. The rapid discoveries and innovations in technology and in science are hardly giving us the time to reflect on their effects. Sometimes it is amazing that everything does not just fall into chaos.
I cannot help but wonder if it is the desire for prosperity and material wealth, the promise of luxury and comfort, that is keeping people quietly and obediently hoping for better times rather than taking more responsibility to create them. As the vehicle of creativity, art has the inherent ability for providing a higher quality of life for more people — if there is no art, there can be no sustainability.
There are great opportunities in inviting more artists to learn about sustainability. I believe that anything we give our attention to multiplies. We seem to be giving a lot of attention to money and technology; clearly we are seeing these aspects of our civilization evolve rapidly. There is an evident lack in how much attention we are giving to nature as well as art — as a result many of our ecosystems are threatened and art, for the most part, is becoming very commercialized and separated from society. This is primarily the result of choices we have made individually and collectively. Choosing to give more attention to art and nature will have tremendous consequences on our daily lives, as well as positive implications for the development of our civilization.
Making the connection between the arts and sustainability supports the growth and development of the human spirit. If we think about the arts as a natural process that is at the core of expressing our humanity, we will naturally find ourselves creating a more loving and sustainable world — one that is more in touch with the natural laws of the universe.
We need to start by educating artists about sustainability. Art itself needs to receive a more central role within the public educational system. At a time of great change, people need to learn to engage with the arts as an empowering and inspiring force. Education and raising awareness is at the core of bringing the issues of sustainability to a higher place on the worldwide political agenda.
Modern industrial societies have lost the connection to the sacred and almost magical role that art has played in everyday life since the dawn of humanity. This is a role that art still maintains in some indigenous societies. Interestingly, very few people practice living life as a form of art.
The good news is that the time of crisis is also the time of opportunity. Indeed, the Chinese character for crisis and opportunity are one and the same symbol. If we can create a multitude of versions of sustainable lifestyles that speak to as many diverse desires as there are people, many will be bold enough to undertake this courageous journey.
I would like to end with two quotes that directly express the directions for further research. The first quote represents arts as the basis of education, and the latter about the fact that everyone, in their own capacity, already is an artist. The opportunity lies in starting to engage with this gift.
Art should be the basis of education. No other subject is capable of giving the child not only a consciousness in which image and concept, sensation and thought, are correlated and unified, but also, at the same time, an instinctive knowledge of the laws of the universe and a habit or behavior in harmony with nature… if any type should be regarded as the ideal type, it is the artist. But there is no such thing as an artistic (aesthetic) attitude. Every person is a special kind of artist… they are manifesting a form in which common life should take in its unfolding.”
— Education through Art, Herbart Read
Art is a means of connecting two worlds, the visible and the invisible, the physical and the spiritual. The area of our consciousness where culture has its roots lies in the uncontrolled mind of every individual: in the moment when it is given space to make a creative leap. Artists, scientists and spiritual masters alike have great respect for that particular faculty of our human potential. It is in the realization of each individual’s intuitive creativity that everybody would agree with the statement “everyone is an artist.”
— Louwrien Wijers